Robo-Mate: An ‘industrial’ exoskeleton that can make weights 10-times lighter

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In spite of recent advances in development of heavy-weight countering robots, one of the startling statistical figures pertain to how an average human production worker lifts up to a whopping 10 metric tons of material on a daily (workday) basis. Unsurprisingly, one of the perturbing effects of such load-carrying activities relates to how 44 million workers in the European Union suffer from musculoskeletal disorders that are primarily work-oriented. In regard to such troubling aspects of human labor, scientists at the Fraunhofer IAO research institute have devised a prototype solution. Envisioned as an advanced exoskeleton rig, the Robo-Mate is touted to be the first mechanism to be specifically designed for industrial work. When translated to a physical scope, the exoskeleton can make loads up to ten times lighter for humans to lift and carry.

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In terms of its design, the Robo-Mate consists of three three major modules – the arm, trunk and leg. The arm module acts as the primary strength-endowing mechanism, and it is designed to be attached to the upper and lower arms of a person. According to the researchers, the system using its built-in motors can alleviate the tremendous force acting on the workers (when they are lifting loads) by ten-fold reduction in magnitude, thus allowing them to easily handle heavy weights. For example, a 15 kg (33 lbs) car seat would actually feel like 1.5 kg (or 3.3 lbs) – if the exoskeleton is used for the lifting task.

The complementary trunk module is contrived to stabilize the back portion and the spinal column of the worker. In essence, it can crucially protect the spine from harmful conditions like slipped discs, when the worker is bending his back and lifting the heavy item. And as for the leg module, it is designed to stabilize the thighs in conjunction with the trunk module. So, when a worker do his heavy-lifting job in a squatting posture, the leg module stiffens to provide him with a makeshift sitting support that reduces the strain on his thighs.

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As for the practical application of such a exoskeleton mechanism, the system is mainly tailored to the physically demanding production and assembly-line jobs. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, many of the complex assembly procedures – like organized dismantling of motor vehicles, require human ‘touch’, as opposed to robots with complex programming. However, such multiple-hour long tasks also do tend to have their inevitable strenuous effects on the human workers.

To that end, the Robo-Mate (which has been in development since 2013) does justify its physical prowess and stability. But beyond just effective robustness, there is also the element of aesthetics; as made clear by Prof. Wernher van der Venn, coordinator of the Robo-Mate project – “the prototype is functional, but its appearance is still off-putting”. In other words, the scientists are still looking forth to refine the end product that would be acceptable to the workers while being highly functional at the same time.

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Source: Fraunhofer / Via: Gizmodo

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